December 2011

My Hall of Fame Ballot for 2012

I voted for Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, Jack Morris, Rafael Palmeiro, Tim Raines, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell.

It’s a very down year for first-year possibilities on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot distributed this month to eligible members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. There’s not a single newbie who comes even close.

We can all vote for as many as 10 candidates. I stuffed my ballot with nine of them, eight who I voted for last year with the addition of Larkin. I’m voting for the Reds shortstop for the first time. It is his third year on the BBWAA ballot.

When anybody says statistics don’t change, they’re right. But strength of the ballot does. In my mind, he had a wonderful, but borderline Hall of Fame career. He was overshadowed defensively in his own National League by Ozzie Smith and completely eclipsed in the American League by Cal Ripken Jr., the two Hall of Fame shortstops who are the comparables in Larkin’s era. But this better be his year. Trammell, who had a similarly long and distinguished career for the Tigers, should also not be ignored.

This is what Larkin has to contend with in the next four years:

What surely will be a controversial vote next year will include all-time home run leader Barry Bonds, 354-game winner Roger Clemens, 3,000-hit-club member Craig Biggio, 12-time All-Star Mike Piazza and Sammy Sosa, who slugged 609 homers. The ballot for 2014 induction will boast a trio of great pitchers in Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina, plus slugger Frank Thomas. The group for 2015 will include another great group of pitchers: No. 2 overall strikeout leader Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, plus outfielder Gary Sheffield. And finally, the ballot for 2016 will offer outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte and closers Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner.

It’s not unheard of, but Larkin needs a big jump. In 2011, he garnered 62.1 percent — 361 of a possible 581 votes. Based on those figures, he must leap ahead 12.9 percent to gain election. He received 51.6 percent of the vote in 2010, his first year on the ballot. If not, it will be a long wait.

With the steroid era now about to fully infect the election process, the ballots from here on in are going to be very tough.

I’ve often thought that you have to take the players from that era on a case-by-case basis, but I’ve changed my opinion. The Mitchell Report revealed that great pitchers (Clemens and Eric Gagne) were perhaps as guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs as great hitters (McGwire and Bonds). It named utility players, bit players, lower level players and the top players. Thus, the playing field must be considered level. Otherwise, except for rare cases, no one really knows who did what.

Under those circumstances I believe as a voter that everyone should be painted with the same brush. Either you vote all the qualified candidates in or you don’t vote for anyone who is remotely suspected.

As a lifetime member of the BBWAA I take this vote very seriously. I have no desire to be judge, juror or soothsayer. So I’ve decided to judge those players within the context of the era during which they played, and if they’re deserving, vote them in.

Thus, my ballot again includes a player who failed a drug test (Palmeiro), a player who admitted that he used steroids (McGwire), and another who was tainted by the cocaine era of the 1980s (Raines). I believe all of them statistically belong in a Hall of Fame that already includes the likes of Gaylord Perry, who brashly admitted to throwing the spitter when he was active from 1962-83. That pitch was outlawed by Major League Baseball in 1920.

Palmeiro — on the ballot for the second time — may be statistically on the bubble to some, but not to me. His 569 homers and 3, 020 hits places him in rarified company as only the fourth player in Major League history to amass more than 500 homers and 3,000 base hits. The other three are Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray.

I’ve been among the 25 or so percent to vote for McGwire every year he’s been on the ballot. His 583 homers — 70 of them in 1998 and 65 in ’99 — are good enough. The home run race between McGwire and Sosa in ’98 put baseball back on the map after the strike that devastated the sport only a few years earlier. Since the steroid precusor Andro was found in McGwire’s locker — like many — I’ve long suspected him of using PEDs. His public apology didn’t change anything.

It’s the second time I’ve voted for Raines. Listening to Andre Dawson talk about him during his 2010 induction speech in Cooperstown made me take another look at Tim’s record. Certainly, he was the NL’s version of Rickey Henderson before his personal problems affected his career. He played 24 seasons, had 808 stolen bases, 2,605 hits and batted .294. Tony Perez was elected to the Hall with 2,732 hits and a .279 batting average.

And just a note on Jeff Bagwell: Rumors about possible steroid use don’t bother me. I just think he’s a very good player, but not of Hall of Fame caliber. His numbers are very similar to Steve Garvey — Bags .297 batting average to .294 for the Garv, 2,314 hits to 2,599, 449 homers to 272, 1,529 RBIs to 1,308 . But Garvey had two NL Championship Series MVPs, an NL MVP, an All-Star MVP, the longest consecutive game playing streak in NL history (1,207), one of the highest fielding percentages as a first baseman (.996) and an errorless season (1984). Garvey also played on five NL pennant winners and a World Series winner in ’81 with the Dodgers. Bagwell did almost none of this with the Astros. And Garvey didn’t get a sniff from the writers for the HOF.

That’s why I didn’t vote for Bagwell.